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Mythology

What was Sisyphus's crime?

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August 25, 2011 5:18PM

Sisyphus was one of the sons of King Aeolus of Thessaly. He and his brother Salmoneus hated one another, and Sisyphus tried endlessly to kill his brother. He established a kingdom at Corinth and instituted the Isthmian Games. Often, though, he would have travelers to his kingdom killed and their possessions seized, which was against the Laws of Xenia, the Greek concept of hospitality.

That wasn't what did it, though. He was also considered one of the craftiest mortals to have ever lived. In one of his plots to kill his brother, Sisyphus seduced Tyro because the oracle said she would bear him a son that would kill Salmoneus. Upon discovering this, Tyro killed the child. He also inspired the ire of Zeus by telling the river god Asopus the whereabouts of his daughter (whom Zeus had abducted) in exchange for the placement of a spring in Corinth. For this, Zeus decreed that he be chained in Tartarus.

But that wasn't the crime either. You see, before he was chained, Sisyphus asked Thanatos, god of death, to demonstrate the strength of the chains, and while he did, Sisyphus fastened them, binding death so no one could die. Ares eventually intervened because war without death is meaningless.

BUt that wasn't it either. Before he was taken again by Thanatos, he ordered his wife to toss his naked body into the middle of the public square as a sign of her devotion and love. Of course, this violated the normal burial practices. When he arrived in the Underworld, he complained to Persephone that his wife deserved to be punished by him for her thoughtless act; a wish that was granted. Sisyphus gladly returned to Corinth to scold his wife, but when his spirit refused to return, Hermes was sent to being him back forcibly.

Because of his many attempts to escape death and the rule of the Underworld, Sisyphus was told he could never leave again until he placed a large boulder soundly at the top of a steep hill. His punishment is that whenever he nears the top, the boulder shifts and escapes him, rolling to the bottom again. So arduous and continuous is his labor that it became cliche.